Just got back from a quick two days in Mexicali and one in Ensenada. Mostly I ate very well. Unfortunately I was in Mexicali to do some research on the Chinese community there for a book, so two of my meals were at Chinese restaurants. Having lived in Hong Kong for 9 years and having traveled a lot in China and Taiwan, and living in L.A. which has the biggest Chinese community in the world outside of a native Chinese country, I'm pretty fussy about Chinese food. Suffice to say that the food I had in Mexicali was about on par with Chinese food that one can get anywhere in mediocre restaurants that cater to a largely non-Chinese clientele. That said, I'll bet if I showed up with some Chinese friends and we talked our way into the kitchen and could consult with the chef about what we wanted, we'd get something a whole lot better.
Still, on to the Mexican food I had in Mexico. My very favorite taco stand in Los Angeles is Mexicali Tacos & Company. They set up at 1st and Beaudry on the edge of downtown, Wednesday through Saturday nights. They are fantastic and they recommended two asaderos to try in Mexicali. (They are from Mexicali.)
I ate first at Sarita's on Benito Juarez in front of UABC. I had two asada tacos and one al pastor. They were good, but not spectacular. The asada lacked much smoky flavor and was somewhat gristly and tough. The pastor was better, but it wasn't cut directly off the spit - which is the way to go if you ask me - and had been sitting around for a bit waiting to be reheated on the grill. (I was there at around 11pm and it was fairly crowded, so it wasn't that I was there during an off hour.) The selection of salsas and other accompaniments - grilled and pickled jalepenos, grilled green onions, quacamole, cucumbers, etc. were all quite fresh and nicely made, though the salsas lacked a lot of punch and for some reason didn't have much depth of flavor. The tortillas were not particularly fresh. Actually, while writing this I've realized I didn't think their tacos were all that good at all.
I fared far better at their other recommendation - Ocotlan on Cardenas, just to the east of Benito Juarez. There the asada was of higher quality with a much more pronounced char to it. The salsas had more oomph and the array of accompaniments - which were brought to the table - was great. The tortillas tasted fresher, though still not quite as fresh as I would have liked. I also had a chicken vampiro - with a garlic sauce. That was a disappointment. The chicken lacked char and the garlic sauce was meek enough that it really wouldn't scare away any vampires for long. Still, the place was great atmospherically, the sides were fantastic and I will happily return when I am next in Mexicali.
I found my own way to El Nuevo Tecolote on Av. de las Americas, not too far east of Justo Sierra. The smell of grilling beef made me pull my car over. It was very good, almost as good as Ocotlan, and for the same reasons, but the meat was just slightly inferior. They did have one particularly fierce bright red salsa that was my favorite of the three places I went.
That was it for Mexicali. I arrived in Ensenada for a late lunch and went straight to Manzanilla, which I'd read about and wanted to try. It is the restaurant of chef Benito Molina and is quite well known. It was phenomenal, fantastic, superlatives fail me. It was as good as any light, but complex lunch I’ve ever had in a fancy Paris restaurant or places like that. Started with an amuse bouche of really tender squid (I think) in a very light chipotle crème on top of a house made, really strong wheat cracker, sprinkled with just enough sprigs of anise that you could taste them. Then there was an appetizer of baby local abalone that had been lightly doused in local olive oil, a bit of lemon and sea salt and grilled perfectly, served with a roasted tomato salsa that was incredible and little crispy bits of toast made from a homemade bread that was sort of a lightly sourdough wheat. The presentation was also beautiful. Then I had the absolutely best, over the top perfect, grilled yellowtail – super fresh – with a crispy but not burnt skin and moist perfect flesh, served on top of a bed of greens – either collards or mustard, not sure which – that were tender but somehow also a bit crispy, with a chickpea puree and bits of citrusy tasting chayote squash. It was truly one of the best fish dishes I’ve ever had. I had two glasses of a wine called la llave (the key) from the Valle de Guadalupe. It was a white blend of sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc and muscatel (oddly) and it was a truly superb white wine. Finished with a perfect espresso. A beautiful place, unbelievably nice people – the chef and the owner both came out to introduce themselves.The bill came to about $37, but in L.A. it would have easily cost at least $65-70 per person. I was simply blown away by it.
For dinner I stuck to the street. I had a fish taco at a place called Tacos Pescado de Ensenada, or something like that. It's on the corner of Juarez and Gastellum and I have the blog StreetGourmetLA www.streetgourmetla.com to thank for the recommendation. It was by far the best fried fish taco I have ever had. I'm not usually that fond of fried fish tacos, but this wasn't greasy at all, was very fresh fish and the array of condiments to put on it - the taco was served simple - a big hunk of fish on a warmed tortilla - was excellent.
Later I had a good, nothing special but good enough for my by then vodka saturated self, puerco adobada taco from a place that I can't recall the location or name of, but it was probably not any better or worse than dozens of other adobada tacos around town.
For breakfast I got lazy and went to the hotel restaurant in the Best Western - across from the Villa Fontana - where I stayed (funky, old, nice bones to it but sort of musty. There's undoubtedly better to be had for the money - $59 per night - in town.) The people who ran my hotel were very nice and helpful though and when I told them I wanted chilaquiles for breakfast they sent me across the street. They had a good variety of chilaquiles and the verdes proved to be quite tasty. I wouldn't make a special trip for them, but I was far happier than I had expected to be.